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It has been said by some experts that to understand Poland you must understand the composer Frederic Chopin.

The creative genius, one of the most original of the 19th Century, was born outside Warsaw in 1810 to a French father and Polish mother and in a proud nation suffering under partition and divided among occupying Russians, Prussians and Austrians.

Thirteen years before Chopin was born, the occupying powers even abolished the very name "Poland". The country had been crucified, as the poets of the Romantic era put it, awaiting a Resurrection which did not occur until 1918.

The always short and physically frail Frederic Chopin moved with his family to Warsaw as a newborn and lived there until he was 20 when he left his homeland for good. From Warsaw's historic Old Town down Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street, along the Royal Way to Lazienki Park, you can walk down the same streets young Frederic strolled, past palaces and churches in which he gave performances. Although he spent almost half of his life in Paris, traditional Polish music permeates his compositions and he always considered Warsaw his hometown.

And the city never ceased being proud of him either The $28 million, interactive Fryderyk Chopin Museum opened last March to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the composer's birth. Originally a two-roomed museum with dank gloomy basements in the city's 17th Century Ostrogski Castle, it has been transformed into a five-storey exhibition which makes good use of modern technology to tell the story of one of the greatest pianists in history.

Visitors are given a plastic ticket which, once swiped past the blue light readers at the entrance, can be used to access information on touch screens in eight languages.

In the cavernous brick vaults of the basement you can select an etude (a musical composition), place the score on a glass panel above the keys of a 19th-century piano that belonged to Franz Liszt and listen as a pianist's hands play the piece on a wall projection.

"It's kind of a holy place," Keiko Kondo, a visitor from Japan told me beside the piano. "Lots of people say Chopin is very romantic and delicate. I don't think so. I feel a power and a strength," she said.

In the kid's room, children can sit on bean bags in large colourful portholes to watch a puppet theatre show the 14-year-old Frederic wrote, or try to reconstruct a tune whose notes have fallen off a scale.

Among the 7,000 items in the museum's collection are  a lock of Chopin's hair and a gold pocket watch the Italian soprano Angelica Catalani gave the nine-year-old prodigy after one of his concerts.

Just up the road from the museum on the Royal Way is an apartment where Frederic, together with his family, lived for the last three years of his life in Warsaw.

It is a little difficult to find, located at the end of a corridor on the second floor of the Academy of Fine Arts. There are few signs and I had to be careful not to tread on the works students were making in the corridors outside the lecture rooms.

The drawing room has been reconstructed from a sketch made in 1832 and is decorated with period furniture. On a Buchholtz piano, similar to one Frederic owned, is a score of his Second Piano Concerto, with corrections in his own hand. It was in this room that Chopin gave the first performances of this concerto.

The windows look down onto Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street, Warsaw's most elegant, and the wrought-iron gate of the city's university where Frederic studied and a church were he played organ during Mass.

The Church of the Holy Cross is a few steps down the street. Inside a pillar on the left-hand side of the nave is an urn containing Chopin's heart, which according to his wishes was smuggled home by his elder sister, Ludwika.

The young Frederic would often walk down the Royal Way, visiting friends or going to cafes and bookstores. The route is marked by black granite benches which play different Chopin compositions.

If you follow the Royal Way you will arrive at the Lazienki Park. If you visit during summer you can attend the free open air concerts on Sundays given by pianists from all over the world. It is the perfect place to hear Chopin's music the power and beauty of which was once described by his contemporary composer, Robert Schumann, as, "cannon buried in flowers".

 

Adam Easton covers eastern Europe for the BBC and is based in Warsaw.

 

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